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✨What studies say about UFO🛸 conspiracies✨
Can large groups maintain secrets? What are the physics of UFOs? + more
In a recent congressional hearing, a former US intelligence officer named David Grusch claimed he has seen persuasive evidence that the US Government has alien spacecraft. In light of these explosive claims, I thought it would be worth looking at what academic studies can tell us about the elements of the claimed conspiracy. Even if the aliens part is made up—and I am not saying it is or isn’t—the other elements of the story are definitely real and can be studied. These elements include;
1) The math of conspiracies. (When does an organization get too big to keep a secret?)
2) The physics of theoretical alien spacecraft. (Based on sightings, what are the capabilities of these hypothesized craft?)
3) The psychology of emotional stories. (Can we tell when an emotional story is true or false?)
4) What are the odds of life on other planets. (Based on certain assumptions, what are the odds alien life exists?)
This episode of The Studies Show reviews academic studies which explore these questions, as well as providing additional suggestive information about the UFO phenomenon, which is probably the most well-known conspiracy theory in existence today.
Let’s get started with a paper on the feasibility of large organizations maintaining conspiracies:
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Study #1: How long can large organizations keep a conspiracy going?
There are many UFO conspiracy theories, but the one told by David Grusch goes like this: Elements of the US Government, aligned with a military contractor, have kept a secret program on this topic for 70 years. This program has hid the truth of Alien craft/visitation from the public.
Elements of this story that we know are true are the facts that there are interesting videos of unidentified objects which some believe are actual flying craft, and the US military does admit that it has evidence which is not released to the public.
On the conspiracy side, if you take out aliens you have a much more mundane, but still important question: If a large group of people does something secretly—how long before the secret leaks? We have seen this kind of issue before, notably with the Edward Snowden situation.
Grimes (2016) is a study which examines the math of conspiracies.
As we can see, the more people involved in the conspiracy, the harder it is to hide the truth. How did Grimes get these results? The simplified version is that this paper makes some basic assumptions about the odds someone in on a conspiracy will flip, then multiplies the chance they’ll flip by the number of people who know the truth, times the number of years. So, even if there’s a tiny chance anyone spills the truth, if you have a million people in on the conspiracy, it’s going to be revealed pretty fast. It’s pretty intuitive, and you can see the results in the table above.
Here Grimes makes some assumptions about how long it would take for real-world 2016-era conspiracies to unravel, based on the number of people who would have to keep the secret. These involve widespread but patently false claims, such as the moon landing hoax, etc. Especially notable for the present day is the calculation comparing how long it would take for a vaccination conspiracy to be revealed if the drug companies—which are huge—were also in on it. It just shows one of the many reasons the fringe COVID vaccine conspiracy theories don’t make any sense, even if it is true there are some important scientific debates surrounding the vaccine.
Takeaway #1: Small conspiracies can persist in secret for a long time.
Regarding Grusch’s claims, I have no idea how many people work on the alleged secret program, but I think Grimes (2016) supports the idea that a small (100-300 people) secret program can exist for a long time.
I do think Grimes is very negative on there being a massive conspiracy across multiple governments. Grusch has claimed the Vatican (and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini) was in on it, and also that there is a crashed UFO in a foreign country so large they built a building around it. Others have speculated that the Chinese and Russian militaries have their own programs. This seems exceptionally hard to believe given the number of people involved, and the many ways that the secrets could leak.
I do need to note that there was a correction to this paper, but not one that changed the fundamental results. Ultimately, I think Grimes supports the idea of a long running but small conspiracy, especially if it involves only 50 people or so, but obviously says nothing specific about the aliens angle.
Takeaway #2: Evidence against conspiracies makes some believe the conspiracy even more
It’s also worth highlighting a section near the end of the paper which talks about the dynamics of conspiracy theories:
In a recent Californian study on parents, it was found that countering anti-vaccination misconceptions related to autism was possible with clear explanation, but that for parents resolutely opposed to vaccination attempts to use rational approach further entrenched them in their ill-founded views. The grim reality is that there appears to be a cohort so ideologically invested in a belief that for whom no reasoning will shift, their convictions impervious to the intrusions of reality. In these cases, it is highly unlikely that a simple mathematical demonstration of the untenability of their belief will change their viewpoint. However, for the less invested such an intervention might indeed prove useful.
Long story short, evidence is counterproductive if you truly believe a conspiracy. Which just goes to show that, if it turns out we have never been visited and Grusch is mistaken, or intentionally lying, a hard-core group of supporters will cling to this topic forever.
Many Grusch defenders note his impeccable military credentials. Indeed, he may be proven correct. But before we get to the next paper, I think it’s useful to think about some basic statistics.
Thinking about extreme beliefs using basic statistics:
There are 330 million or so people in the United States. This means a belief so out there that it is held by only 1% of people will still equate to 3.3 million believers.
10 percent of Americans think the earth is flat. That’s 33 million people. And sure, some people are joking when they give these answers, but again, any belief held by a small percentage of people will mean millions of adherents. According to Pew Research 27% of Americans believe God determines what happens to them “all the time” which equates to 89 million people. This is not to make a judgment on that claim specifically, but that does show that ideas of a higher power with mystical abilities is not unusual. This should be considered when thinking about beliefs in aliens.
But let’s go slightly further, and assume that a small subset of people who hold outlier views are also 1) very charismatic and believable, and 2) share their stories.
Let’s assume 1% of Americans are convinced UFOs have visited them, and 10% of those people are charismatic, smart, and essentially believable. That is, they are “normal” people with standard normie views except they believe aliens visited them. That’s 330,000 people with broadly believable stories. Let’s assume that one percent of this population comes forward per year with a well-written, cogent sounding, believable story, that gives us 3,300 stories per year, or 9 believable, well-written stories per day! If around 1% of these people are in the military, we then get 33 stories of UFOs from military members, which sound believable, or are at least difficult to disprove. That’s three stories per month.
Takeaway #3: Statistics suggests there are a lot of people with fringe beliefs
This is one reason why lots of convincing stories without evidence are not very convincing to me.
But… Some people do have evidence, which will soon lead us to study #2.
The US Government Acknowledges it has evidence it won’t share
The most famous known UFO/UAP case with acknowledged evidence that the public knows about is probably the 2004 Nimitz “Tic Tac” incident in which US fighter pilots encountered a Tic Tac shaped craft in the Pacific. There were multiple eyewitness accounts backed up by radar data. These craft supposedly moved and turned at speeds impossible for human-designed airplanes. Other similar sightings have been reported, including with radar data and videos. David Fravor is the most public figure who participated in this event, and also testified to Congress recently.
Much of this data remains classified, and the Navy admits it has more videos, but has refused to release themas "The release of this information will harm national security as it may provide adversaries valuable information regarding Department of Defense/Navy operations, vulnerabilities, and/or capabilities,"
Takeaway #4: The most basic “conspiracy”—that some information held by the government is not public—is 100% true. Whether that matters is another issue.
The most banal conspiracy theory seems to be real. The US Government admits it has more evidence of the UFO phenomenon. This is not to say it shows they are aliens, but that there are further videos of somethingthe public has not seen. That’s not even a conspiracy, it is just true. In the 90s WIRED reported about the Manta/Aurora aircraft which some claim are secret US government craft that people mistake for UFOs.
The real question is what this unknown evidence reveals. Assuming all of these are actually US or Chinese craft, it makes a lot of sense why they won’t release the information.
It does appear there is other evidence of Tic Tac craft.
These redacted classified presentations, received via FOIA, refer to a Tic Tac craft like those previously seen, spotted by a satellite surveillance system. They also reference a command and control craft. Nearly the entire presentations are redacted.
How you interpret this evidence highly depends on your point of view. If you think it’s a disinformation campaign, the fact the government is releasing this report appears suspicious. If they truly thought these sightings were aliens, and they wanted to cover it up, they wouldn’t release the reports. On the other hand, if you think there is a vast conspiracy, the fact we have a partial portion of a huge PowerPoint on aliens just shows we are at the tip of the iceberg.
Study #2: The possible performance of Tic Tac UFOs
What do academic studies say about the performance of Tic Tac craft? I’m glad you asked, because Knuth, Powell, Reali (2019) studied this based on their reported characteristics. Among other things, the study analyzed what their reported performance would mean if they are indeed spacecraft.
The authors write: “The main point is that not only are the observed accelerations of these UAVs consistent with those required for interstellar travel, but that some of these UAVs exhibit capabilities suggesting that they could be spacecraft with impressive interstellar capabilities.“
What is most important about this chart is that it shows, if near speed of light travel is possible, the elapsed time for an individual inside the craft is only going to be a day or two to nearby stars.
If they are indeed piloted by living beings, it is reasonable that someone with a human-length lifespan could travel between Earth and nearby stars without aging much at all. (This is because time slows the closer one travels to the speed of light.) My understanding is that the theory of how this is possible is that these craft warp spacetime itself, enabling them to accelerate and move extremely quickly.
Takeaway #5: If the Tic Tac craft are real, they are ludicrously advanced, which does suggest they are likely not made by the US or China or Russia.
Let’s go to another study, and also look at a forum post from Reddit’s /r/Ufos, which is a great resource for anyone interested in the topic.
Study #3: People can’t tell the difference between true and false memories
Shaw (2020) had subjects watch videos of people recalling false or true memories, and asked them to judge which was real. People did no better than chance:
Regarding highly emotional stories, people have trouble telling the difference between truth and fiction, meaning there likely is room for bad actors to make up UFO encounters (and I do think most UFO stories are made up, even if some are real).
Shaw (2020) notes “This research provides evidence that false memories look real. Participants were no better than chance at identifying rich emotional false memories, and no better than chance at identifying rich false memories of committing crime.” They continue further saying
“The results presented here have direct implications for police and legal contexts. In addition to the risk of misidentifying false memories as true, the results presented here show the risk of misidentifying true memories as false – participants were no better than chance at correctly classifying true memories.”
Takeaway #6: We are just not good at identifying false stories, but we also often label true stories as false.
The relevance to the “it’s aliens” side is clear. We are just not good at determining which stories are real or fake, absent other evidence. This is crucial when we consider stories like this, which often pop up online:
We should have compassion for those who claim to have experienced UFO events, whether true or not:
This Reddit post claims to be written by a Northern California CEO who saw floating metal orbs twice, then had telepathic contact with NHI, and now has been diagnosed with brain damage/scarring. He links to an article discussing Stanford Professor Garry Nolan’s research on the brains of those who have had NHI experiences, many of which show damage.
Assuming this is not a made-up story, this is a fascinating case because it speaks to either explanation–if these were hallucinations, the brain damage makes sense. If he really had his brain contacted by NHI, the brain damage makes sense. A touching part of this story is the person in the comments who reports having a similar experience and warning him not to tell the story to doctors, because he will sound crazy. Whether or not these events occurred, reading these comments gives me a strong sense of compassion and pity. It must be a horrible feeling to believe you have been contacted by a force you cannot control or understand, to receive brain damage from that experience, and have nobody believe you.
Takeaway #7: The UFO phenomenon is real for many people, whether it is real in reality or not
At this point, it might make sense to take a break and overview the essential conspiracy theory at hand here:
The basic contours of, and my problems with, the current UFO/UAP Conspiracy Theory:
Grusch and others seem to argue that a small group of government officials, aligned with military contractors, has operated a secret program to reverse engineer craft. These craft have fantastic abilities we do not understand how to reproduce.
On the one hand, Grusch did have access to secret information, and many other high-level officials and politicians, including Harry Reid, John Podesta, and John Brennan (former head of the CIA) seem to believe something is happening there.
But believing this conspiracy theory also leads us to believe several other implausible things:
Alien craft routinely crash despite being extremely advanced.
They crash in such a manner that they can still be flown and/or can be repaired, despite being well beyond our technological frontier.
If they are not crashed, the aliens are simply leaving them behind.
In an age of high-powered DSLR cameras (in addition to smartphones) nobody has a great photo of them yet.
Regarding point two: This is a piece of the fuselage of Flight 93, which crashed on September 11th, 2001. It seems implausible that aliens crash and also that the wreckage can be flown. But perhaps these craft are so much stronger than our planes.
But there are also other reasons to be skeptical, even though these claims received a congressional hearing.
Some proponents of UFOs in Congress already believe demonstrably false conspiracy theories:
Congressman Matt Gaetz claims in this video, that he was stonewalled but eventually saw video of a craft that defies known US/Chinese/Russian capabilities. Anna Paulina Luna (R-FL) also seems to believe there is a conspiracy. Congressman Tim Burchett (R-Tenn) said "We couldn't fight them off if we wanted to. That's why I don't think they're a threat to us, or they would already have been." Hurting their credibility is the fact that all three of these people seem to believe the demonstrably false claim that the 2020 election was stolen. It’s always funny to imagine that the “Deep State” let Trump win in 2016, but intervened to stop him in 2020 when Trump was already president of the US. Anyway. Fringe UFO beliefs also pop up other places, way beyond lawmakers. One of the Americans who defected to North Korea gave a rambling anti-American speech which touched on UFOs, among other things.
Proving UFOS are real is easy.
UFO claims, like religious claims, can be proven true easily. All that needs to happen is for the resurrected Jesus, or say, angels proclaiming the truth of Christianity (or any other religion), to visit the White House/Vatican/wherever. Similarly, the UFO debate will be ended instantly if they land in Times Square, visit the White House, or use their amazing technology to hover over any major city for a few minutes. If a scientist or normal person finds a craft in their backyard before the feds get to it, posts it to TikTok, they will get millions of views and we will know UFOs are real.
But, if the powerful being does not want to communicate, and actively tries to hide itself, then we are in a bit of a pickle. An extremely powerful being with high technology will not be able to be seen easily if it doesn’t want to be. And indeed God will be able to hide his existence from us if he wants to. As with the existence of God, these facts are not a slam dunk in terms of the disapproval camp, but they do raise questions as to why we don’t have better evidence of the UFOs.
“The UFO debate will be ended instantly if they land in Times Square, visit the White House, or use their amazing technology to hover over any major city for a few minutes.”
Parallels to Religious Arguments
Absent hard proof, the UFO debate can get somewhat theologically adjacent, with parallels to the debate over Jesus’ divinity sometimes known as “Lewis’ Trilemma” which basically argues that Jesus was either
Evil (because he knew he was lying)
Crazy (because he was lying, but didn’t know it)
God (because he was telling the truth)
Similarly, the UFO debate could be summed up as, perhaps a
Psyop (the government/grifters selling books are pushing false information)
Mass delusion (the phenomenon is fake, or results from crazy people telling stories, but these people genuinely believe the UFO phenomenon is real)
True (UFOs are real, here, and have miraculous capabilities)
I don’t think we need to focus on the theological debates but it is worth saying once more that proving the truth behind the existence of a very powerful-being is actually easy–if the powerful being wants to cooperate.
Study #4: The Drake Equation
This is not technically a study but I didn’t want to change the heading structure. Anyway, the Drake equation is one way of roughly estimating the odds the odds of life in the Milky Way, but the output is highly dependent on your priors. Since we have little understanding about how easy it is for life to originate, it’s unclear what guesses we should make. For what it’s worth, my try at the Drake equation yielded a total of 4 civilizations in the Milky Way. You can try your hand at it here.
Drake himself claimed the initial meeting surrounding this equation resulted in an estimate of between 1000 planets to 100 million planets with life in the Milky Way, showing just how uncertain we are on this one. Since my inputs resulted in an estimate of 4, maybe I’m a pessimist.
Two more pieces of evidence:
If you haven’t been following this story it may be shocking to know just how bold the claims some publications have been willing to print have been. For example:
Dr. Eric Davis, mentioned in a 2020 New York Times article (reposted here by the Baltimore Sun) which says “Davis who now works for Aerospace Corp., a defense contractor, said he gave a classified briefing to a Defense Department agency as recently as March about retrievals from “off-world vehicles not made on this earth.”
The comments section of this 2020 New York Times article with Leslie Kean and Ralph Blumenthal features direct questions from readers which were answered by Ralph. The article, which is entitled “Do We Believe in U.F.O.s? That’s the Wrong Question: Reporting on the Pentagon program that’s investigating unidentified flying objects is not about belief. It’s about a vigilant search for facts.” is also well worth a read. In the comments, Ralph Blumenthal asserts the evidence they have seen suggests they are indeed “off-world vehicles”.
Takeaway #8: The New York Times found a quote about “off-world vehicles not made on this earth” credible enough to print. That either speaks highly of the UFO story, or speaks poorly of the NYT.
Worth noting: The authors of the above mentioned article are the same as the ones who broke the David Grusch story.
Another tantalizing piece of evidence is the so-called “Wilson Memo” which was entered into the congressional record during the Grusch hearings.
If you think Grusch is telling the truth, you should read the Wilson Memo.
This memo which purports to memorialize a meeting between Dr. Eric Davis and Admiral Wilson, in which Admiral Wilson discusses being refused access to the a UFO crash retrieval program run by a military contractor, despite the fact that his rank should allow him access to such a program. When he complains, he supposedly is threatened with early retirement and demotion.
UFO believers often point to this as one of the better pieces of evidence, although it should be noted that Admiral Wilson himself claims such a meeting never took place. However, if the details of the memorandum are true–and he really was threatened over knowledge of such a program, this makes sense. Dr. Eric Davis himself was later quoted in the New York Times article about the subject, suggesting that the paper believes he is a reliable source. Whether this memo is real or not, it’s interesting these players are linked.
Takeaway #9: The contours of Grusch’s conspiracy theory are present in other sources, including the Wilson memo. This speaks to either a long running disinformation campaign, a pseudo meme that keeps getting repeated, or perhaps an actual conspiracy where similar claims keep popping up.
What happens next?
This article in The Hill gets it right. Entitled “A monumental UFO scandal is looming” it starts with the paragraph:
“The decades-long saga of unidentified flying objects (UFOs) is barreling headlong toward one of two stunning conclusions.
Either the U.S. government has mounted an extraordinary, decades-long coverup of UFO retrieval and reverse-engineering activities, or elements of the defense and intelligence establishment are engaging in a staggeringly brazen psychological disinformation campaign.”
While I do think it is possible there are other options—it is possible everyone is confused by the events and rumors have filled the gap—the broad contours of that statement align with my current thoughts on the matter. The fact that so many Military/Government affiliated officials Lue Elizondo, Christopher Mellon, Eric Davis, Harry Reid, John Podesta, and now David Grusch, have varying degrees of claims about the reality of these craft, seems to suggest something strange is going on.
Grusch claims to be able to provide evidence in a classified setting, and so it is likely lawmakers will soon know whether his claims are believable. Notable too is the fact that lawmakers have added demands for disclosure in various pieces of legislation, so if truth exists to these claims, more people will hopefully know soon.
Takeaway #10: Given Grusch’s offer to provide more information to Congress behind closed doors, we should know a lot more within a year or two. If we don’t I think that’s negative for the idea there is truth to the conspiracy theory.
Ultimately, whatever happens, I think this time period will be a fertile area for more studies and hopefully inspire researchers to do more good work.
Below are more interesting things I found, and a paragraph I cut from the piece, in case you want more.
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p.s. This topic has so much evidence and chatter and rumors and information that I could only include some of it. If there is demand for another post on this topic I may do another in the future. Thanks so much!
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Appendix A: More interesting evidence
An interesting quote:
John O. Brennan, former director of the CIA, said this on Conversations With Tyler: “But I think some of the phenomena we’re going to be seeing continues to be unexplained and might, in fact, be some type of phenomenon that is the result of something that we don’t yet understand and that could involve some type of activity that some might say constitutes a different form of life.”
I don’t even know what to make of that statement, but it seems notable that the former director of the CIA basically says ‘hey guys, it could totally be aliens’.
Interesting but extremely speculative “evidence” by “whistleblowers” online
These should be taken as entertainment, but given the strange place we find ourselves in, those interested in the UFO discourse may want to familiarize themselves with this content, since they come up a lot, particularly the 4Chan whistleblower.
4Chan Whistleblower- This is a series of posts by someone who claims to have worked on UFO programs for the US Government, is dying from cancer, and decided to tell the truth. The replies line up with an emerging sort of story about Aliens which has taken root. He starts off the series of posts saying:
I have intimate knowledge of what the US currently knows about UFOs minus the last two years.
- UFOs are primarily unmanned drones
- UFOs are built to spec each time they are deployed
- UFOs are created by a mobile construction facility that hides in the ocean
- Construction facility destroys anything that comes close to it and will disappear for days when approached aggressively
- US believes the facility has been active on earth for at least 100 years or much longer
This is a different post by someone who supposedly worked on Alien bodies. It appears even less believable than the 4Chan Whistleblower, to my eyes, but various people who claim to have relevant expertise have debated online whether the claims have any credence.
Appendix B: Most UFO conspiracies make no sense even if the big UFOs conspiracy is real
The big conspiracy theory that the USA has hid evidence of UFOs for decades is often followed by a host of other follow-up conspiracy theories trying to explain why this is the case. One of the more common theories is that the USA has suppressed UFO technology because it could result in limitless clean energy. The “logic” is that this would destroy the oil industry, the idea goes, which means that the industry, working in concert with the government, has suppressed the truth of UFO clean energy.
The reason this makes no sense is obvious. The US (until the fracking revolution) has been a net importer of energy, and would have benefited immensely from infinite free energy. The real winners from the Oil-based world have been Russia, Saudi Arabia, and other oil producing nations. As I mentioned, while the USA has started pumping more oil recently due to fracking, this conspiracy theory suggests oil companies blocked UFO technology even during the 1970s Oil Crisis, which would’ve been an ideal time for the USA to have free energy.
If American oil companies really were so powerful, the technology simply could’ve been transferred to the oil companies. But, anyway, we also have great case studies proving this theory is false:
Some people believe the US went to war in Iraq for oil, despite the fact that we did not seize the oil. (Trump memorably complained about this, saying we should’ve seized the oil). Instead, Chinese companies moved in.
More than half of Iraqi oil comes from wells with Chinese involvement, and 30% of Iraq’s oil goes to China. If the USA was really evil enough to suppress infinite clean energy for the benefit of the oil industry, it would have been evil enough to keep Iraq’s oil.
It also goes without saying that the US simply could’ve used this infinite energy technology to produce free energy for all Americans, while keeping the technology secret, lying about the true nature of the technology, or charging an enormous license fee for its use by allies.